In 2016, the Pentagon was confident enough in the troubled F-35 program that it extended the fighter’s projected service life from 2064 to 2070. Now, some of the $80-million aircraft may be written off well before then, despite spending 15 years in development and less than a decade in service.
A few weeks ago, a top general indicated that the Air Force is considering retiring older F-35s instead of retrofitting them with the many upgrades and fixes that have piled up throughout the fighter’s short time in service. The Marine Corps may also be forced to retire some of its F-35s in a few years. A recent Pentagon report warned that the aircraft’s many structural problems, some of which are still unresolved, could mean that older aircraft could cease to be airworthy as soon as 2026. Worse, it’s still not clear whether upgrades which were applied to later production models have actually improved their durability. Many of the Marines’ F-35s could end up serving out less than a quarter of their anticipated lifespan.
In both cases, “older” is a relative term: F-35 production started in 2006. The Marines’ F-35B model entered limited service in 2015, and the Air Force rolled out its F-35A variant just over a year later. And the F-35 isn’t the only expensive toy—almost $1.2 trillion for the entire program—that’s on the chopping block much earlier than originally planned. In February, the Navy announced that it would be decommissioning four of its Littoral Combat Ships: the USS Freedom, Independence, Coronado, and Fort Worth, the oldest of which only entered service in 2008. Meanwhile, the Navy is having trouble identifying a mission for its $16 billion LCS fleet, which will require another $61 billion to maintain and operate throughout its lifespan, assuming the rest of the ships actually remain in service as long as they’re supposed to.
As one observer recently pointed out, the Defense Department’s convoluted and wasteful acquisitions process is a symptom of a more fundamental problem, which is that the United States lacks a coherent global strategy and is blind to the limitations of its power. So it’s worth taking a look at what research, development, and fielding of new weapons looked like when America had a clear mission—and when the American defense sector championed merit over politics. In order for future developments such as the Air Force’s promising Next Generation Air Dominance program to succeed, the defense industry must learn some important lessons, not just from the failures of the F-35, the LCS, and other projects, but also from a time when the American technology sector was at its peak ingenuity and drive.
The Lockheed Corporation, predecessor to the F-35’s embattled designer Lockheed Martin, was responsible for building some of the most impressive aircraft in history. Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects, nicknamed “Skunk Works” as a reference to a 1940s comic strip, built aircraft that played a pivotal role in countering the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The F-80 Shooting Star was the first jet fighter to shoot down another jet, a Soviet MiG-15 fighter over Korea. The ultra-lightweight U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flew high over Soviet territory, taking photographs of military installations from up to 80,000 feet and evading early surface-to-air missiles. The A-12 and SR-71 spy planes added extreme speed to extreme altitude, blazing past Soviet air defenses at up to three times the speed of sound. Skunk Works was effective because its top-notch engineers were allowed to operate with relative freedom from Lockheed’s bureaucracy and management constraints, and even encouraged to bypass standard procedures when necessary.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find that same can-do American spirit at Lockheed Martin. According to a former employee, the F-35 project has become as much a jobs program as a national defense priority. And the Project On Government Oversight has extensively reported on Lockheed Martin’s incompetence and corruption throughout the two-decade-long program. If Lockheed Martin were a serious organization as it was during the Cold War, it wouldn’t operate like this. And if the Department of Defense were run by serious people, it wouldn’t allow defense contractors to engage in fraud, waste, and abuse on this scale. Lockheed Martin might be drawing the most fire right now over the F-35, but the company’s behavior is emblematic of a defense establishment with severely distorted priorities.
So it’s time to put it all on the chopping block. No more handouts to companies like Lockheed Martin, which already earn billions selling weapons to the American military. No more dysfunctional acquisitions programs with unattainable goals. And no more ever-shifting, ever-expanding global ambitions which inspire those unrealistic objectives. American taxpayers and service members deserve better.
Chris Nagavonski is a writer and translator specializing in defense policy and Eastern European affairs. His writing has been featured by The American Conservative, Real Clear Policy, American Greatness, and the Acton Institute.
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